Does Semillon age well? Duh

Does Semillon age well? Duh

Richard Paul Hinkle

I became an unpaid, unabashed, disgustingly resolute tout for aging Sauvignon blanc after drinking the Benziger clan’s 1983 Glen Ellen rendition over a period of nearly a decade. As we finished the last bottle of two cases – admiring the olive fruit and the oily, succulent, juicy texture the wine had gradually picked up over those years (a November 1991 note: “perfection in white wine!”) – our only wish was that we had had the foresight to get three cases! (Or, damn it all, four!)

One day – this was in the early ’80s – I was tasting Vichon’s lovely mix of Sauvignon blanc and Semillon with then-winemaker George Vierra and his assistant John McKay. We were talking about how the two varieties complemented one another, the former bringing stricture, backbone, and early-developing fruit to the melange, the latter adding flesh and body…and increasing textural notes with age.

“We believe that Semillon has a tremendous capability for aging,” observed McKay. “When we (he and Vierra) were at (Charles) Krug, retailers used to return Krug’s Dry Semillon to the winery, often after sitting in store windows for years. We’d snap the stuff up when it came into the tasting room. It was wonderful wine.”

When asked, other winemakers with Semillon experience, would reiterate McKay’s stance: Forget California’s over-ripe, over-oaked, over-treated Chardonnays, it’s Semillon that’s the best white wine for laying down a decade or more.

So, I pitched a piece on doing a vertical tasting of Semillon to our erudite publisher (don’t laugh, he probably knows what erudite means!), got up one recent morning at three, caught the four o’clock Airporter, the 6:40 Alaska Air hop to Sea-Tac, and by ten was seated in an elegant conference room – whose walls are graced with giant vineyard scenes (they know where great wines originate) – with Chateau Ste. Michelle’s outdoors-loving winemaker Mike Januik (sadly pronounced, simply, “Jan-ick”, I was hoping for something a little more European, a tad more exotic). I wouldn’t reach the steps of my home until 9:30 that evening, but our ten o’clock tasting that morning made the endless day well worth the hours it ate up. Who else but Washington’s premier winegrowing estate would have so thorough an archeological treasure trove of Semillon?

The brown-maned, mustachioed Januik seems a very quiet fellow, but solid in both physique and winemaking. Originally a graduate in anthropology from Oregon State (he started out majoring in English), Mike became a wilderness ranger out of his love of open spaces. He spent six years working for the U.S. Forest Service.

“That was a great job,” he laughs. “I’d work seven months, then goof off for five. Travel. Go to Mexico, where I could live off of my savings, cheaply. Then, my wife and I opened a wine shop in Ashland with a friend. But brewing beer and making wine at home was what really got my imagination kick-started. I took some chemistry classes in Ashland, got my Master’s from Davis in ’84, and headed straight for Washington.” (His wife’s family hails from Seattle.)

Januik worked first at Stewart Winery in the Yakima Valley, then for Snoqualmie for a short time prior to joining Chateau Ste. Michelle in 1990.

“Columbia Valley Semillon is more structured than California Semillon,” says Januik, framing the discussion at hand. “We get better acidities, yes, and the pHs are lower than you’d expect, so the wines end up being better balanced, initially, with more aromatics and better fruit definition when young, and, as you might expect, better capable of handling bottle age.

“I should note that the acids are not incredibly high. They’re usually in the 0.65 to 0.70 range. But you’d almost expect to see a pH of 3.4 at those acid levels, and we don’t. Our pH is usually pretty close to 3.0 or 3.1. I think that’s a factor of our soils, which are fairly low in potassium. You see, high potassium levels act as a buffer to pH, preventing it from dropping at high acid levels.”

Mike notes that Ste. Michelle has moved its Semillon sourcing from the Yakima Valley east and south of the main part of the Columbia Valley, namely Horse Heaven Hills and the Waluke Slope, “Semillon fruit from Yakima Valley tended to be too herbaceous, in a cool year very weedy, reminding of Jalapeno peppers,” says Januik with a wary grin. “Whereas we get much fresher, more defined fruit components from Horse Heaven and Waluke.”

Januik suggests that Semillons tend to go through three stages in their aging process. “From about one to three years from the vintage they display a lot of fresh fruit characteristics, including melon and citrus. From four to eight years are what I call the ‘teen-aged’ years. They lose that fresh fruit, but haven’t yet developed the bottle bouquet that makes the older Semillons so interesting and alluring. I kind of lose interest at this stage.

“The third stage, from about eight years onward, is the most interesting. The texture becomes rich and oily, and the bottle bouquet adds honey and beeswax characteristics. Part of that texture comes from oak, but we don’t use much new oak. That’s not the point of these wines. It’s not the oak, it’s the texture. And we don’t put our Semillon through malolactic. You’d lose too much of Semillon’s natural structure if we put it through em-el.”

We started our vinous archeological expedition with the 1972 Yakima Valley Semillon, which had a clear, deep gold color. The aromas were spicy, with smokey notes and hints of caramel. The texture was oily, rich and round, a theme to be repeated through the tasting. A little honey poked its nose up here and there, and some oxidation was clearly evident. Clearly not dead, the wine had seen better days. Not so the ’74.

My primary, overriding descriptor for the 1974 Semillon-Blanc, all in caps, reads “PERFECT.” And it was. So much so that a bottle made its way to our luncheon where, accompanied by rack of lamb, it starred with wines only months out of diapers.

Let me tell you why. The color was a bright yellow-gold. In the nose, ripe figs and crisp anise, with warm herbaceous notes. The texture was pure velvet, but big and long to boot. Communications Director Katie Sims said, “shellfish.” Januik countered with, “crab! We catch our own, and tend to eat crab more than anything else with our Semillons. Fresh Dungeness crab, grilled. Nothing better!”

The ’75 Semillon-Blanc was up next. (Until 1991, when the last Semillon-Blanc was produced, that designation referred to Semillons that were fermented in stainless-steel only, whereas those wines labeled simply ‘Semillon’ were partially barrel-fermented. Now, only a single Semillon is produced. And it is barrel-fermented.)

The 1975 was every bit up to the ’74, from its yellow-gold color to its vibrant hazelnut and beeswax bouquet, and the lively licorice and anise in the mouth. “You know what’s also good with these wines?” asked Januik rhetorically. “Copper River salmon. There’s so much fat in this Alaskan salmon that you can’t over-grill it. And the crispness of the Semillon, along with the round texture, matches up well with the richness of Copper River salmon.” Nothing to do but nod agreement to so cogently expressed an argument.

The 1978 Semillon-Blanc still had tremendous acidity and crisp hazelnut and anise fruitiness. The acidity is so crisp and vigorous that Mike’s argument for salmon seemed to have its ideal expression in this brittle beauty.

The ’81 and ’83 versions turned out a bit on the heavy, oxidized side, with hints of botrytis, hazelnut and gunpowder. Not “throw away” awful, but pale shells compared to the magnificence of the ’74 and ’75 editions. “We do see bottle variation in these older wines,” admitted Januik almost sheepishly. (Come to think of it, lamb would match up wonderfully with most of these older wines!)

The ’84 Semillon-Blanc brought equally crisp acidity, with an herbaceousness that reminded me most of white asparagus and a spiciness that screamed white pepper. (It wouldn’t have been so loud had it not been for the enamel-etching acidity holding it all together.)

The 1986 Semillon-Blanc didn’t seem to be in any teen-age funk that I could find. Rather, it showed lemon and other citrus characteristics, neatly framed by crisp, brittle acidity. The last of the Semillon-Blancs, the ’91, had a gunmetal steeliness, with anise and grapefruit in the mouth and a crispness that almost begged pork. In contrast, the ’91 Semillon, showed equally razor-sharp, gun-metal acidity, with tangy grapefruit and only the slightest graham hint of oak. (Understand, the Semillon is priced at a mere $7 the bottle. Production is 10 to 12,000 cases a year, out of a brand that reaches 600,000 cases each vintage.)

It was only after tasting the ’94 and ’95 vintages that the previous three wines appeared almost dumb and faded, for this pair was almost scandalously and flagrantly forward with fragrances of melon, orange peel, lime and lemon, hint of butterscotch, and clues to textural greatness in abundance. “I think you can bring in a wider variety of foods with these younger wines,” chuckled Januik. “The older ones are so distinctive, so overpowering that you have to be very selective in their food pairings. These wines, when they’re this young and this forward, are great with turkey sandwiches. With a hearty cheese, and maybe a salad.”

One of the things I had noted, in looking over the product sheets, was that residual sugars ranged from 0.50 to 0.82 over the years. “That’s true,” says Januik. “That’s a vintage by vintage decision, based upon whatever tastes best. It’s really a balance question. It depends on the flavors that are there, it depends on the acidity, and we’re looking for a certain viscosity. You’ll note that the residuals have gone down where the wines are barrel-fermented. The barrel fermentation adds to the wine’s viscosity, so you don’t need quite so much residual sugar for that aspect of the wine’s overall balance.”

Director of vineyard operations of the winery’s Columbia Valley vineyards is Charlie Hossom. “Semillon does particularly well in low water-holding-capacity soils,” says Hossom. “Out in the Columbia Valley, we have sandy-loam and silt-loam soils that are very self-limiting. Clay is less than one percent, and we only get eight inches of natural rainfall a year, so we get to choose when and how much water to put on. It’s essentially hydroponic farming, on a large scale!”

According to Hossom, water management is the key to getting quality Semillon fruit. “Semillon wants to keep increasing its berry size, right on through harvest. We begin to run into water deficit in June, and when we do irrigate, we want to maintain that deficit position. We don’t want it to get away from us; we don’t want water stress. But we do want the deficit. That way, we can keep berry sizes down so that we can hold yields to three or four tons per acre, rather than seven or eight.

“It also means that we change the plant’s cell growth to smaller cells, rather than the larger plant cells we’d get if we began irrigating earlier than May or June. Keeping cell growth to the smaller cells translates into better lignification, better winter hardiness.”

Like Januik, Hossom is a big fan of Washington Semillon. “I worked at Inglenook before coming north in 1989. I was involved in their Gravion project, which aimed at a Sauvignon blanc and Semillon blend that was intended to equal Haut-Brion blanc. At least, that was the model. California Semillons tend to taste a bit of oatmeal. Grown here in Washington, you can actually wait until the fruit ‘pinks,’ which is the indicator of perfect maturity. Here, Semillon pinks at 21.5 or 22 [degrees] Brix. In Napa Valley it pinks at 27 [degrees] Brix!

“So grown here in Washington, you get Semillon with great balance and complexity, without the wine’s being heavy. And the most wonderful thing about Washington Semillons is that they age beautifully, picking up those ‘mead’ characteristics – the fresh fruit, the beeswax, the honey. Washington Semillon may be something of a sleeper, but the wines are of such high quality.”

The author of several wine books, Hinkle is the creator of “Hinkle’s Laws” T-shirts [designed by Ralph Colonna]. For information, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Hinkle’s Laws, 2036 Stonewood Dr., Santa Rosa, Calif. 95404.

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